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Innovation to Ubiquity

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

I’ve joined a gym.


Three blocks from the Times Square location of Thomson Reuters is one of two locations for Mark Fisher Fitness. This gym provides communal fitness experiences primarily for people involved in the performing arts. Think Broadway dancers and Greenwich Village artists. And me. Aside from the nightclub lighting and carefully curated playlists of the group fitness classes, there’s perhaps a more unusual aspect of working out there:


Semiprivate personal training is conducted with iPads.

Basically, instead of having a personal trainer working with each person, a trainer floats between small groups of people following a regimen listed on an iPad that each person has nearby. After each exercise, you enter the weight or reps, and based on that data, a new workout will be designed each subsequent time you come in.


It’s undeniable that technology is omnipresent in today’s world. Artificial intelligence capabilities like machine learning and natural language processing used to be the stuff of fiction. But the technology once only seen in Star Trek, Tom Swift books, and Jetsons cartoons is here, real, and permeating every aspect of society. While the world continues to chase the latest in innovation, there are still players in legal industry is still coming to grips with the fact that legal technology in general is now less novel innovation and more overarching ubiquity.

At Thomson Reuters, my Technical Client Manager colleagues and I meet with attorneys, librarians and IT teams to keep a pulse on the myriad of trends created by law’s technology revolution. Talking to people in the trenches is an invaluable reality check for me on the seemingly endless ways firms are implementing technology solutions for improving attorney workflows, back office solutions, discovery processes, transactional drafting and other avenues of legal work. More and more law firms are embracing technology at every level of operations, and professionals are changing their perceptions on technology in the firm. Trainings are taking less time, and upgrades and rollouts are a normal part of job. As an IT director from a firm in the greater Boston area told me, technology adoption is now an ever-constant process, not a series of isolated events.


But these talks are also a reminder that this embrace of technological ubiquity is not itself ubiquitous. I still visit firms where typewriters are used for trusts and estates work, where attorneys dictate into a cassette recorder, and where IT personnel adamantly refuse to move to the cloud. This holds true for small cities, regional urban hubs, and even firms in midtown Manhattan. I will not be the one to say these firms aren’t successful. In many ways they are. But, for many firms like these, they are not looking to be innovators. Instead, they are at the crossroads realizing that there is a new ubiquity, wondering how will they adapt.


It’s worth reminding that many managing partners may have come of age during the Space Race reading Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asmiov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But they came out of law school ready to argue motions, not automate documents. It’s why the ABA is beefing up the technology standards in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and why state bars are looking at mandatory technology CLEs. Similarly, many librarians never envisioned curating digital resources or automated workflows. Nor did a generation of IT directors ever envision software solutions beyond what was installed locally. But as my colleague Joe Raczynski has touched on before, exponential growth has made all this and more ubiquitous. Even white shoe law firms are endeavoring to catch up, most notably Shearman & Sterling’s commitment to leveraging the new technology’s ubiquity to improve efficiency to better client service and attorney workflow.

Indeed, this was on display at the 2018 ILTA Conference in Washington, DC. While #ILTACon2018 trended on twitter alongside innovation sound bites, a quick scan of the downloadable ILTA sessions show that many sessions were geared less toward inspiring innovation efforts and more about pragmatic ways to take advantage of not just the technology available, but also ways to maximize human capital freed up from rote tasks technology can handle. Like other industries, law firms looking to direct effort into technology don’t have to build incubators or separate ventures for digital solutions. Rather, leverage the ubiquity of technology to augment the existing day to day. Supplementing, rather than disrupting, has been happening in and outside of the legal industry, and these incremental changes allow law firms to keep pace with their competition. Khalid Al-Kofahi, Vice President of Research & Development at Thomson Reuters, often notes in his presentations that early adopters are best positioned to navigate change. But for those adopting later, for the attorney still dictating into a recorder, for whom this paradigm shift may be hard to embrace, technology doesn’t have to be an obstacle to practice. Wholesale disruption may make the headlines, but an openness to technology, adopted piece by piece, is palatable and practical.


No longer can anyone pretend legal technology isn’t thriving across all sectors of legal services. Document automation or AI empowered legal research is not an automat. Its adoption across the industry has moved legal technology past initial innovative buzz and increasingly into industry ubiquity. After all, a court may ask for your next brief be electronically filed. Opposing counsel may produce documents for you via a secure portal instead of a bankers box. The senior partner may ask you for analytics on how often the judge has denied a motion to dismiss. And then when you may leave your law firm to hit them gym, your workout might be led over an iPad.

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.